Matara: Digging Legends


Scratch the surface of any town in Sri Lanka, and out will pop amazing tales, and legends that keep you digging deeper and deeper, taking you off the track of your initial story writing. And, if you possess that gift of seeing with your eyes wide shut, you can enter a wonderful world, of romantic poets, intrigue, courtesans, all complete with clever handsome kings with a trailing of beautiful queens and tragedy as in Greek or Shakespearean dramas. So it was with Matara and my wanting to write a simple piece for my website after a days romp through the staid Dutch built Church, Fort and other monuments.

Śakuntalā Looking Back to Glimpse Dushyanta". Scene from Kālidāsa's The Recognition of Śakuntalā as painted by Raja Ravi Varma. Image in the public domain.

The legend that emerged is of the scholar poet King Kumaradasa or Kumaradhatusena son of King Kasyapa of Sigiriya fame and the poet and dramatist, Kalidasa who is supposed to have lived sometime between, 170BCE and 634CE. Kalidasa's second play "Shakuntala" written in the 5th century is generally considered to be his masterpiece. It is an epic love story about young lovers who meet in innocence, fall in love, are cruelly separated and eventually reunited in eternity.

Matara in 2014, a far cry from the ancient settlement.

Matara likes to claim Kalidasa as a son of theirs but our big neighbhour India thinks otherwise. Doubts do exist about Matara being the birthplace of Kalidasa. However, it has been a fascinating exercise connecting different pieces of the legend, on this side of Lanka-in Matara to be precise. Apparently, King Kumaradasa's, epic Janakiharana was read and lavishly appreciated by Kalidasa and he was in Lanka as a royal guest. The salacious bit of the legend is that the handsome King in flagrante delicto with a courtesan, spied a bee entangled in the petals of a lotus flower, and was inspired to write two lines of poetry. The king then offered a reward for anyone who could complete these two lines.

No bees on these lotus flowers for sale at the entrance to the Pigeon Island. ©Chulie de Silva

This version of the legend surfaced as I searched for early history of Matara and this landed me on the Historic Tale of Matara, by Gamini G. Punchihewa who in his version says that the cunning courtesan seized the opportunity and took the two lines of poetry to the king's friend the poet Kalidasa who completed the two lines of the verse". But by doing that Kalidasa signed his death warrant as the courtesan poisoned and killed him to get the reward for herself. The king on seeing the completed two poetic lines instantly recognized Kalidasa's handwriting, which exposed the courtesan's vile plan. Punchihewa quotes from the chronicle, "The 'Rajavaliya', and says "as Kalidasa was being cremated, the king unable to control his grief threw himself into the pyre." Apparently, the King's 5 official Queens had also leapt in to the flames, completing this tragedy.

 According to local lore, seven Bo trees were planted over these seven tombs. Then came the Dutch to rule Matara and one of these Generals circa 1783, is said to have ruthlessly cut down those seven Bo trees and had used its timber for building construction purposes. The seven Bo trees are popularly known as the 'hath Bodhies' and one is supposed to have survived the Dutch axe. 


Matara, meant Maha Ethera, the grate ford of the river Nilwala Ganga, that made this an early settlement. It was also known as Mahathitha, Nilwalathitha and Mahithitha and was the pivotal centre for the cinnamon production and the southern elephant trading. The Muslims were the masters of the gem cutting and trading business and not at all difficult to imagine it as a bustling city with many international traders. 

One of the houses built by C A Lorensz in Matara.©Chulie de Silva


 The Matara Maha Waluwa, now the Cooperative Hospital of Matara. ©Chulie de Silva

Thus, Matara grew and many of the wealthy Sri Lankan merchants built palatial Dutch influenced houses with wide verandah's and high ceilings as the "Matara Maha Waluwa," now a Cooperative Hospital. The garden of this once magnificent house slopes down to the famed Nilwala, and this was where I met the boatman Saman, checking his crab traps. He had 6 traps set out and says on a good day he can make about LKR 1500 – 25000. Dangers of course lurks below the placid looking blue water and Saman points up the river and says there is a 25 foot crocodile somewhere skulking and marking time beneath the waters.

For me Matara, was the pit stop town on the way to Kataragma where we would lean out of the car and peer into the Nilwala river to see if we could spot a crocodile. The most famous of these crocs were the female "Kimbuli" immortalized in the children's ditty:

"Matara gange sitina kimbuli ge patiya

Thalla sudai, belley gomara katiya

Yana ena oru paru nawathagena hitiya

Mini nokai matara kimbuli ge patiya."

The verse is about the lady croc's daughter – "petiya," – meaning offspring, whose palette was white and the neck had freckles. She would stop the boats that plied the Matara River, but she wouldn't eat human flesh. It is a simple enough ditty that the boatmen would have sung among others in the olden days as they ferried people along the river. The new disconcerting interpretation I heard is that hidden in it is a different story. The Kimbuli was another name for a prostitute, but her daughter, did not take up to earn a living as her mother!


 Read the English Translation of Kalidasa's Shakuntala  translated by Arthur W. Ryder, Cambridge, Ontario 1999.  http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/shakuntala_ryder.pdf



Among ghosts and legends at Sasseruwa (Res Vehera)

Ancient monasteries, potent legends, the mystique of incense laden Buddhist temples is a heady combination and a good playground for amateur photographers. Sasseruwa also known as Res Vihara is such a Buddhist monastery, so named as the area was flooded with rays of light (Res) when the Bodhi tree was first planted. The tree was one of the first 32 saplings (Dethis maha bo Ankara) of the Sri Maha Bodhi in the Anuradhapura.

The monastic complex is located off the beaten track at Galgamuva in the Kurunegala District. Dating back to the 2nd century BC, Sasseruwa Raja Maha Vihara had nearly 100 caves where over 360 priests had lived and attained spiritual enlightement like the Buddha. The main attractions now are the magnificent colossal unique Buddha statues – one reclining in the main cave shrine and the other, the unfinished standing brooding Buddha carved into a rock face. Incidentally both statues are around 39 feet in length and height.

Reclining Buddha Statue Res Vehera 
We had taken a couple of wrong turnings and the light was fading, and the inky blue black night was almost on us. I was despairing as there wouldn’t be enough light to photograph. The glimpse of the white stupa, across a lake at Sasseruva was a welcome sight.  As KM de Silva said, the white stupa “gave a subdued but unmistakable quintessence of Buddhism –simplicity and serenity.”
 My mind wandered away back in time. I roamed invisibly among the caves of priests meditating; listening to sermons in the evenings, with “hulu athu’ (natural torches made of leaves) lighting up the complex; the Bodhi Puja at the feet of the tree; the lonely artist  moping near his unfinished statue; King Dutugemunu’s Army camping near the lake and even spotting a love tryst between a comely maiden and a handsome warrior. ..

Romanticism aside it was also interesting to reflect on the fact that although  the two forms of religious exercise Buddha proscribed were mediation and learning through sermons, how we lesser mortals needed the rituals of worship for spiritual sustenance. Prof. MB Ariyapala in his book “Society in Medieval Ceylon.” says how people influenced by beliefs and superstitions needed Bodhi trees, dagabas and image houses and the rituals of worship. Thus he says every monastery then also had to have amidst the meditating priests, Bodhi trees, stupas, image houses, and alters for offering flowers and incense. In that respect, society hasn’t changed that much from medieval times.


The main image house “Rajamaha Viharaya” is perched high up on a rock. Inside it is a virtual treasure trove, albeit the collection of frescoes and statues are fast decaying. The Pièce de résistance is unique 39.5 foot reclining Buddha Statue. I walked around the statue as I have never been able to before in any other temple. The robe is of actual cotton threads pasted on the statue and then painted. The threads, the story goes were were woven by a poor woman as an offering to Buddha.


Buddha is supposed to have had thousand-spoked wheel sign on his feet, as described in the Digha Nikaya, in the “Discourse of the Marks” (PaliLakkhaṇa Sutta). In the earliest phase of Buddhism was generally aniconic, with the Buddha being represented as symbols such as a footprint, an empty chair, a riderless horse, or an umbrella. Many early worship stones with the Buddha’s foot print exist at monastery sites.

The entrance to the resident of the guardian cobra of the reclining Buddha, Raja Maha Vehera, Sasseruwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

 As I was trying to focus on the intricate design of chakras carved under the soles of Buddha, another traveller was pointing and photographing the hole on the wall just behind me. Apparently the hole was the entrance to the abode of a cobra, the guardian of the statue. And if that message on the wall was not enough for any robbers, there was this seated Buddha statue with the cobra sitting very protectively over the head of the Buddha.


The Cobra shielding the mediating Buddha. Sasseruva (Res Vehera) Raja Maha Viharaya. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

 Earlier, with creaking bones and wobbly knees I had climbed up uneven 300 or so stone steps to view in wonder the 39 foot vertical colossal Buddha statue of Sasseruwa. Chiselled in high relief, this unfinished statue is considered to be far inferior to that of the more famous twin the Aukana Buddha statue. In the fading light, there was so much feeling and intensity. One long ear lobe was carved ( as in photo) and the other was not.

 Details of the face of the unfinished statue showing the carvings on the left ear. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

At least 3 versions of legends exist as to why it was never finished –it was a competition between the master and the protege and the latter gave up when the Guru completed first his Aukana statue. The second is the work was abandoned when the artist discovered a crack on the rock. The third is that it was the work of a craftsman from King Dutugamunu’s army and was carried out when the army camped here before going to war with King Elara. Apparently, the army was unable to cross the “Malwathu Oya” (river Malwathu) due to heavy rains.


This statue might have lost out to Aukana, but there is still an unmistakable impressiveness of this colossal which can dwarf a worshipper to a Lilliputian.

The cool black of a village night, pierced harshly by a few modern lights, yet caressed by soft breezes was upon us when we left. I turned back to record in my mind a one last look. Are the ghosts I could sense a figment of my lively imagination or is the disappointed sculptor still brooding; is the woman who sewed the robe still around — maybe returned to guard the statue as the cobra; are the many painters who devotedly painted murals lamenting over the decaying of their art works. Who knows, but what I saw was not just ruins but a rich piece of their lives. Are we telling their story well?


Unawatuna – the chunk that fell

Early morning images at Unawtuna. Photographs©Chulie de Silva

Unawatuna is a respite from the over crowded hippy beaches at Hikkaduwa. A ten minute drive from Galle, we opted to stay at Unawatuna during a  a family reunion – a sort of R&R. We missed Hikkaduwa, but  away from the noisy crowded Hikka beaches, Unawatuna was balm to that loss.


Meditations at Vesak


The setting sun turned the sands golden, the rise and fall of the waves,  changing , changing every moment, leaving nothing to permanence,  the horizon stretching away like the samsara — in deed a brief transient moment that embodied all Buddha’s teachings on Anicca (impermanence) , Dukkha (suffering) and Anatma ( absence of a permanent self or soul) . …

The shrine on the beach “Welle Dewale”, Unawatuna

On the beach at Unawatuna. Photographs©Chulie de Silva

The National Geographic placed Sri Lanka at #2 position on its list of the World’s best Islands. Yes, we do have plenty of white exotic beaches and even more exotic legends attached to these beaches. Unawatuna beach, the abode of the “Devol Deiyo” – an interesting dual purpose god is such a one. Here you can turn to him to both bless you and help you or to curse your enemies and correct what you perceive to be wrong.